This week the Houston Astros announced the 10 minor league non-roster invitees they will be bringing to Spring Training next month, bringing the total tally to 22.
For most Astros' fans, Spring Training cannot come too soon, as recent franchise 'news' has consisted of a minute-long video showing Minute Maid Park's scoreboard being dismantled, a story about Ed Wade running the Houston Marathon, and the announcement of a new premium seating area that is available in 2011 called 'The Press Club'.
There are not too many surprises amongst the 10: Jiovanni Mier is there because of a clause in his contract stipulating that he be invited to ST the year after being drafted, Jordan Lyles because he is the organisation's top prospect and J.D. Martinez because he had a torrid 2010 at the plate.
As for the rest, there is no-one who is really ready to contribute at the big league level in 2011, largely becuase most of them, with the exception of Drew Locke, have not played above AAA for a meaningful amount of time (Lyles and J.B. Shuck finished the year at Round Rock).
The real problem with entertaining the possibility that any of the 10 make the 25-man roster for the start of the regular season is that barring one or two spots, the Astros team is mostly set for 2011. There may be a bench place up for grabs, and possibly a place in the bullpen, but really there are only two main gaps for Brad Mills to fill.
The Houston Manager needs to pick a fifth starter. He has four main options: Ryan Rowland-Smith, Nelson Figueroa, Aneury Rodriguez and Lance Pendleton (the last two were acquired in the Rule 5 draft), and then sort out what he wants to do with Brett Wallace and Carlos Lee. If Lee stays in left field and Wallace wins the everyday first baseman's job, then everything is pretty much set. But if Mills and Mike Barnett (our new hitting coach) decide that Wallace needs to work on his swing in the minors and Lee scoots over to first base, then there is an opening in left field.
I find the idea of a Brian Bogusevic/Jason Michaels platoon underwhelming, although Bogusevic will provide a much needed left handed bat in the lineup and has shown some power, a good eye and decent stolen base potential in the minors. Yet there really aren't any other options.
Martinez and Gaston, two of the most likely candidates to fill the void left by Lee (at least in the short-term) when he inevitably moves on after 2012, both finished last season at Corpus Christi. Martinez, a 20th round pick in the 2009 draft garnered Astros Player of the Year honors and batting .341 combined in the South Atlantic and Texas Leagues, but his ISO (isolated power) dropped from .236 to .106 when switching leagues.
Gaston also struggled with the transition from A-ball to Double-A, but it was unlikely he could repeat his gaudy 2009 numbers, put up in the hitter friendly California league. Couple that with the Jethawks home ballpark, and it is no wonder the seventh round pick of 2008 hit 35 home runs whilst also posting an obscene 31.7% strikeout rate.
The step up to the Texas League is a difficult one, and leaving what I have said above aside, both should have solid major league futures, but I doubt they will start in 2011, barring a repeat of Luke Scott's 2005 or Hunter Pence's 2007 Spring Training, and maybe not even then.
It is hard to gauge what the Astros would do if a young position player went on a tear in ST, but my guess would be that unless there was a clear and urgent need to fill they would be conservative, and send them back to the minors. Even when Hunter Pence hit .571 and slugged 1.071 the Astros still sent him down to AAA Round Rock to start the season. Luke Scott won a starting spot in 2005, but the scenarios were slightly different, as that year Phil Garner was struggling to find outfielders with Carlos Beltran gone, Lance Berkman injured in the infamous flag-football incident and Craig Biggio back at second base. In 2007 Houston's outfield was set with Lee, Jason Lane and Chris Burke occupying the three spots.
The case against Lyles inclusion in the competition for the fifth starter's spot is more thorny. As good a pitching prospect as he is, fans should not regard him as a magic bullet for the franchise. In his current state of development, he would only represent a mid-rotation starter, and chances are, at 20, you'd be asking for his arm to blow out. Despite the hype some have heaped on him Lyles is not Doc Gooden.
Nor is the Astros' starting pitching such a weakness that is requires Lyles' being rushed to the majors, in fact, the rotation is as settled as it has been in years. If Wandy Rodriguez is not re-signed and leaves as a free agent at the end of 2011, then there will be a need for the young pitcher in 2012. He may get a September call-up, but what he needs is a year at AAA.
All this hardly gives the impression of revving up the franchise for 2011, and our prospects for the upcoming season may leave many fans feeling flat, especially given their underwhelming off-season acquisitions. What Astros' fans desperately need is a success story in Spring Training to give them some hope, and make them believe that there are better times ahead.
Even if they have little chance of making the team, what this franchise needs is for Lyles, or Martinez, or Gaston to put on a clinic in February and March, generate some excitement, give the club a positive story to spin and most importantly to avoid a freak injury like the one that wrecked Troy Patton's ST four years ago, when he tripped over a sprinkler head whilst jogging on the field and sprained his ankle.
As for the rest, the month or so provides an excellent experience where they can soak up the major league atmosphere, rub shoulders with the current crop of Houston Astros and learn what they can before returning to the minor-league slog. Lacking any help from the minors, 2011 will be about the sophomores Wallace, Jason Castro and Chris Johnson carrying the load.